File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_1996/96-05-20.182, message 51

Date: Wed, 17 Jan 1996 12:23:46 +0000
Subject: Re: virtual social structures

Thanks, for the clarifications on the use of the term 'virtual'. I agree
however, with I.P. Wright when he says:

>I don't see how one can distinguish between `virtual' and `real'
structures. Social structures are real: emergent properties of society.

In this respect the term 'virtual', as Heikki seems to be using it, applies
to unobservable 'things' and as far as we can tell (given the present state
of knowledge) aren't all social structures in principle unoberservable.
Their effects, however, as Doug's Gutemala example demonstrate, are not.
Hence, and given a causal criterion for the ascription of reality, why say
structures are 'virtual' not 'real'? Of course, there might be another use,
perhaps of the form "in the absence of the head of the Finnish Insitute of
International Affairs, Heikki is the 'virtual' head" (Hope you like this
Heikki). I would be happy with this reading, but wonder whether Heikki would
agree? it may be one way to resolve the matter to some sort of mutual
satisfaction. The problem of course, is that it does raise the issue of
levels again since the virtual head - Heikki - 'may not' be causally
efficacious in some of the output of the Finnish Institute and any
explanation of tha output would require recourse to some entity/level - the
real head - which is. (actually, I realised as I've written this there is
one big flaw which tends to somewhat undercut my argument, but for the sake
of debate I will post it nontheless)

Now in this respect I find Heikki's account of a social system deficient in
one crucial area - that of 'unacknowledged conditions': conditions that is
that are structurally influenced. And this is why 'unemployment' can be seen
to be BOTH a cause and an outcome in certain social situations. Moreover,
given the amount of time Bhaskar devoted in PON to the rejection of
precisely the view of structures "causally powerful wholes", why treat them
as such?

>It is very interesting that critical realism can be used to defend
>some of the fundamental ideas of modern political theory. 

But this is to be expected, I don't think that critical realism can be tied
to any one political outlook or any scientific or social-scientific theory.
Anymore than you can say positivism necessarily leads to Fascism (although
many postmodernists do seem to want to say precisely this insofar as they
equate positivism with a modernist form of rationality/enlightenment). It is
precisely this point which makes Suchting's critique of Bhaskar, that is,
that his philosophy allows him to pull a socialist rabbit out of the hat, is
so facile.

>        It is my argument that there is no such "mechanism" as
>'balance of power' or 'invisible hand'. There are unintended conse-
>quences of multiple, socially conditioned actions and there is
>interdependence of these actions, but they are not mechanical
>at all (to Colin: why use the term 'mechanism' if the intention is
>not to say that the production of effects is 'mechanical' at least
>in some sense of the term?; and is not the term 'machine' at the
>origin of both terms?).

Bur Heikki, surely you would allow that the 'balance-of-power' or a belief
in its existence affects the beliefs of policymakers, hence it has real
effects. Even if it is only through the production of 'unacknowkledged
conditions'. Critical realism, however, would clearly be unhappy with any
explanation which dealt only with this surface level and would want to
explain the beliefs (perhaps, the structural causal factors that is) in the
'balance-of-power', the unintended consequences the events that such a
belief might produce and the new unacknowledged condition of action (the
structural elaboration, as Archer might put it) and the conditions of
possibilty for the belief, at a bare minimum.

Moreover, you account of the etymology of the term 'mechanism', in my
opinion, neglects the application of the TMSA to linguistic terms in common
usage. Given Bhaskar's account of knowledge production, that is the use of
antecedant materials, it's hardly surprising that he would use terms to
describe his account that were commononly used. However, and given the fact
that knowledge and lingustic terms are also ameanable to transformation, we
have to see Bhaskar's use of the term mechanism as an attempt to transform
its use. In RTS Bhaskar rejects regularity determinism ( a mechanistic
concept, events of type A will always be followed by events of type B) but
accepts ubiquity determinism (all events have a cause). In this respect his
use of the term mechanism I admit might retrospectively be regretted, and I
think Heikki has a point. But more importantly, given a Bhaskarian account
of causality there is no way the term mechanism can be interpreted
mechanistically, whatever its origins.

I.P. Wright agin raises the issue of straification being central to any
critical realist ontology:

>I thought that one of Bhaskar's more obvious contributions
>was to show the fallacy of ontological `flatness'. Many
>ontological levels supervene on social relations,
>including emergent mechanisms, processes and things.

I think, in fairness to all the contributors in this exchange, we would all
agree with this. The point of difference seems to be where to locate the
depth. Doug puts it this way:

>Hans's interpretation 5 is exactly the interpretation of structure
>I would favor:  structures are real, distinct from agency, but not on a
>different level. 

I somehow missed Hans interpretation. One major issue that occurs to me here
is the difference between whether Bhaskar's 'account' (in the transitive)
dimension) and the issue of the intransitive status of the agent-structure
relationship. I think we have to take seriously the possibility that Bhaskar
could be arguing for a conceptuatlisation of the relationship which is
'wrong'. But this is a different matter from whether Bhaskar's theory
demands that they be seen on diff levels. One question that arises is
whether strata are different from levels? And in this respect I quote from
Collier p.147.

"We are concerned here with two distinct strata, though mutually
ontologically dependent ones. This is a real ontological difference: people
are not relations, societies not conscious agents. Different strata are
characterised by different kinds of mechanisms."

I think I want to reiterate that I don't have this issue settled in my own
mind. I can see good reasons for seeing them on diff levels and good reasons
for not. One point Collier does raise though, in the above quote, is the
criteria that might legitimate talk of levels (I am taking it as given that
strata=levels). For me one criteria is if an entity has emergent properties.
But also, in terms of the agent-structure problem, I am very wary of
treating them on the same level but because it is exactly this fault which
the Berger and Luckmann model suffers from.

However, given my present state of confusion this could all change in 6
months time.




Colin Wight
Department of International Politics
University of Wales, Aberystwyth
SY23 3DA




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